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Manchurian Candidate, The (1962)

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/20/04 14:39:28

"I repeat: best political thriller ever."
5 stars (Awesome)

People have called “The Machurian Candidate” the greatest political thriller ever made. People would be right. The film, adapted from the novel by Richard Condon, is a menacing, intelligent mystery in which everything - script, direction, cast - falls perfectly into place. It was for its time a bold, daring work, and it remains remarkably effective some four decades later.

The genius of the film is hard to pin down, mainly because so many deserve credit. The source material, for one, went mainly unchanged here, so if one is to praise the story for its intensity and inventiveness, one must first praise Condon. But one must also credit screenwriter George Axelrod, who took Condon’s work and crafted the blueprint for a riveting cinematic experience; so many book-to-film transfers get jumbled in the scripting process, but not this one. Read the script sometime and you’ll see that it is what the best screenplays are: a map detailing the rhythm of the film. In pacing, in dialogue, in suspense, Axelrod’s screenplay is tops.

Then comes John Frankenheimer, a director who cut his teeth in television before moving on to features. The result of such training is a work that contains the immediacy of live TV; many sequences are filmed in a you-are-there style, leaving the movie seeming almost documentarian in form.

Watch, for example, the press conference sequence in which Senator Iselin (James Gregory) berates the Secretary of Defense with a McCarthyish list of “known Communists.” Frankenheimer staged the scene with TV cameras surrounding the room, and we see the action not straight on, but from the sidelines. We can see Iselin giving his speech in the background, but our eyes are focused on Mrs. Iselin (Angela Lansbury) as she watches her husband on a TV monitor. The use of the monitor lets us believe that this is real stuff, that somehow seeing it on a cheap black-and-white television makes it all the more actual. It’s a brilliant scene, and just one of many.

Of them all, the film’s most memorable scene - and one of the most clever tricks in cinema history - is the legendary “dream sequence.” In a recurring dream, a platoon of American soldiers have been brainwashed, and even though they’re surrounded by a roomful of Korean, Chinese, and Russian officers and doctors, the platoon is convinced they’re in New Jersey, waiting out a rainstorm and witnessing a meeting of the local women’s club. We first begin with a long, unbroken shot that begins with the dotty speaker of the women’s club, then pans around full circle to the many dotty old ladies in attendance - but by the time the camera returns to its starting point, that point is now the stage of the Communist baddies’ meeting. Freaky.

Frankenheimer then brilliantly toys with the two worlds merging. Sometimes we see Russian soldiers sitting in the Jersey hotel. Sometimes we see the dotty old ladies sitting in the Communist conference chamber. We see what the American soldiers see, what’s really happening, and, just to throw us off, a mixture of the two.

Of course, the real chills of this sequence comes when one of the Americans, Sgt. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), is ordered to kill a fellow soldier, which he does without question. And being brainwashed, the others not only don’t try to stop him, but they actually look bored by the whole affair. It’s one of the spookiest moments I have ever seen on film.

(And how interesting that the second time we see this dream/memory, it’s through the eyes of a black soldier whose brainwashing has him seeing the ladies’ club as one made up entirely of black women. A clever trick to put us inside the minds of these men.)

The plot runs on two tracks, the first being the return home of Shaw, whose mother is Mrs. Iselin and whose stepfather is up for reelection. Raymond’s being used as a pawn by his own family for political gain - upon receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, a few of Iselin’s flunkies rush up and toss a banner overhead, reading “Iselin’s Boy!” As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Iselin is a joke, an often drunk, always clueless rambling fool, and that his wife is the one pulling the strings.

Plot number two follows Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra), recently promoted to Major but unable to shake the recurring dream about the women’s club. Marco is growing mentally unstable, but he’s holding on enough to follow the mystery of why others in his outfit are having the exact same dream, and why everyone gives the same prasing description of Shaw despite his being more or less a royal jackass.

It goes without saying that the brainwashing was real - “His brain has not only been washed, as they say,” one villainous scientist jokes, “it has also been dry cleaned.” But I will not reveal the purpose of the brainwashing, other to say that more people wind up dead before too long, in scenes that will rattle you with their stark coldness.

“Manchurian: is, above all, an exercise in suspense. Sure, it has a poiltical message in the stupidity of the Iselin character (how easily fools can be used to manipulate national politics), but these notions are just intriguing add-ons to the overall tone of unease. This is a ripping mystery and a nailbiting thriller, a film that grows in tension with every scene.

It’s impressive how the filmmakers manage to gain tension out of scenes that do not require it, such as the moment Marco meets Eugenie Rose (Janet Leigh) on the train. All this scene needed to do was introduce Rose as a potential love interest, a nice break in the otherwise stressful story. But here it’s used as an opportunity to create more doubt in the audience. Listen to Axelrod’s dialogue as Marco and Rose exchange bits of stress-induced nonsense. “Maryland’s a pretty country,” Rose offers, even though they’re in Delaware. “Are you Arabic?” the two ask of each other. As the viewer ponders just what in the hell is going on here, it slowly becomes clear that these are two lost souls finding each other and inventing a new private language all their own, right on the spot. Or are they doing something more? The strangeness of the scene and the lack of answers from it all put the audience off their guard, all the while creating an instant bond between two characters. Axelrod does this throughout, finding what would otherwise be just a breather scene and turning it into a memorably off-putting moment.

Sinatra and Leigh handle the material perfectly, with Frank showing us a man tinkering with a breakdown. Yet his performance pales next to Lansbury and Harvey, the sinister dragon lady and her blank slate son. These are two of Hollywood’s most legendary performances for a good reason. Lansbury, long before landing her sweet grandmother persona, here creates a villainess of remarkable evil, a conniving Lady Macbeth who spits out vile for her own personal gain. Harvey, meanwhile, constructs a truly complex character, a spoiled brat of a son who’s both hideously unlikable and yet surprisingly sympathetic. The film requires Harvey to shoot from one emotion to the next, or even remove all emotion entirely, and it’s a shame that this performance was so overlooked upon its initial release.

Frankenheimer once said that “Manchurian” was one of those instances where everything just happened to go right, and it’s hard to disagree with the man. This is a thriller that works on so many levels, as both a story and as cinema. It uses a wide variety of film gimmickry to enhance the overall plot, which then grabs the audience tightly by the throat and slowly squeezes for the next two hours. It’s a film brimming with important detail and nervous energy. The greatest political thriller ever made? Absolutely.

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